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Question of the Month

Is Philosophy Still The Friend Of Wisdom?

Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the many entrants not included. Thanks to Finn Janning for suggesting this month’s question.

If becoming wise involves making effective choices that lead to a morally improved life, it should then follow that philosophy – that rational search for wisdom – becomes its chief means of acquisition. By studying to be wise, perhaps by reflecting upon the experiences of others or reading philosophy books, we can improve our understanding of the world around us. This could make it easier to handle life’s many challenges; for instance when it comes to distinguishing between our individual rights and our moral obligations. Wisdom offers an objectivity that is more helpful than our own narrow, selfish interests. There should be no mistaking wisdom for mere opinion, prejudice, bias, or whim because true wisdom is consistently right and not subject to contradiction or change. Seeking to make wise choices is the closest we mortals can get to attaining the ideal order for living a trouble-free life that allows us to do the right thing. Yet, as the very wise King Solomon lamented at the end of his life, desiring wisdom, as opposed to accepting folly, can make us strangely vulnerable to the wily powers of our own conceit in thinking that it is readily available for the taking. Desiring to make consistently wise choices does not always mean we will. Sadly, many of us only discover the critical pearls of wisdom after we have royally screwed up. As Kierkegaard wrote, “life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards.” This recognition, in itself, may be the best opportunity for wisdom available to us.

Socrates’ method of critically examining our ideas could make our pursuit of wisdom easier by helping us recognize and resolve ethical issues as they occur. Asking ourselves difficult questions about motives and means equips us to become more aware as to where flaws may lie in our often too-easily-formed assumptions. By careful self-examination, we hopefully acquire a more complete awareness of what is required to act wisely. Where this bogs down, too often, is in an inability to attain more than a mere checklist of what’s subjective or moral in our lives. Maybe the time has come to return to the basics of the Socratic method to recognise how unwise we really are in our striving to be wise!

Ian Malcomson, Victoria, BC, Canada

The word ‘philosophy’ means ‘the love of wisdom’. Wisdom is the possession of knowledge, experience, and good judgement. Yet knowledge itself is only information: wisdom is the use of knowledge to pursue the good life. Philosophy developed historically as a response to life in its broadest sense, and so is a friend of wisdom only when it relates to and affects how we live.

When I look at contemporary philosophy, I am struck by a number of features. Firstly, philosophy is now not merely an activity; it is a discipline. It exists primarily within universities and there only texts which take a disciplinary approach will be deemed worthy of evaluation.

Central to disciplinary philosophy is that it does not respond primarily to any natural or social phenomena. Instead it sees everything through the lens of previous, canonical works, and seeks to move the thinking in these canonical works forward in some way. Instead of the mind and the senses ranging freely over all phenomena in search of wisdom, a very narrow concentration on the texts is demanded. These texts are for the most part very sophisticated. Developing their ideas is usually accomplished by elaborating on their arguments. After a certain point, increases in sophistication come at the cost of a ruthless narrowing of vision. It is impossible for any activity so constrained to retain a supple, open-minded approach to wisdom.

Professional philosophy has now attained such byzantine complexity as to become a sluggish and immobile behemoth that waddles clumsily through contemporary life and only with the greatest difficulty catches a glimpse of any novelty out of its small, bleary eyes. To return to the possibility of a comprehensive view of our circumstances and our world, we need to jettison the academic ideal of theoretical sophistication. Sophistication is not wisdom. On the contrary, the harsh truth is that the advances in theoretical sophistication in philosophy (and other humanities) have rendered them less fit for their purpose of exploring, articulating and promoting the good life. In order to be truly philosophical, that is, to truly love wisdom, one needs openness to experience and to the specificities of each new situation more than one needs any theory whatsoever.

Dr Mark Wallace, Renvyle, Co. Galway, Ireland

Wisdom is understanding the fundamental nature of reality, life, and humanity, and using that understanding to guide our lives. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and so should be its friend. In the time of Socrates, it was. Now it is at best a friendly acquaintance. To be a friend of someone is to think often of him or her; but you can read book after book on philosophy and find no mention of wisdom. A friend is helpful, but philosophy today contributes little to wisdom. Even educated persons rarely turn to philosophy for wisdom. How did this happen?

First, the scientific revolution resulted in many disciplines of philosophy splitting off from it, beginning with the natural sciences, then the social ones. Psychology is among the most recent to do so, and today many more people go to popular psychology for wisdom than to philosophy. The natural and social sciences do not provide wisdom, for they look external to our selves, and our fundamental being can only be understood from within ourselves. Most importantly, the sciences deal with fact but not value. Thus, even with the split-off of the sciences, there is still a role for philosophy, and the role is to provide the understanding we call wisdom.

Second, philosophy divided into the analytic philosophy of the English-speaking world and the varieties of Continental philosophy. Analytic philosophy is fractured even within itself. It concerns itself with specific small problems. Its virtues are clarity and rigor; its vice is the lack of a comprehensive view, and hence any hope of wisdom. Continental philosophy has the virtue of seeing that the goal of wisdom, and hence of philosophy, is (to paraphrase Marx) not just to understand but to act. It has a comprehensive view and the hope of wisdom. Unfortunately, it has the vices of obscurity and esotericness. Perhaps one day the analytic and continental philosophies will merge, and philosophy will again be the friend of wisdom.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

Since the word ‘philosopher’ can be roughly translated as ‘friend of wisdom’, we could easily assume that because philosophers were clearly once considered such, philosophy still has the friendship of wisdom. And if not philosophy, what else?

Some might claim that science has now replaced it. Just as mathematics has seemingly been shown to understand the universe better than theology, so science, it is alleged, understands the everyday world, and even our political and ethical lives, better than philosophy. Stephen Hawking went to so far as to declare ‘the death of philosophy’.

However, ‘the death of philosophy’, although welcomed by certain scientists, is not necessarily to their advantage. Despite the impact of science on the modern world, religious extremism and other excessive and irrational modes of thought, such as racism, appear to be on the rise globally, influencing much current opinion. By promoting uncritical belief and intolerance over critical reasoning, these modes of thought are both ‘anti-philosophy’ and ‘anti-science’. Therefore, applauding the demise of philosophy might be mistaken, even for scientists.

It is easy to consider philosophy as presently stuck somewhere between scientific understanding and the irrationality of current social and political dogmatism. But this is not necessarily a bad place for it. By providing a buffer between these different modes of thinking, engendering debate between the different camps and testing and evaluating the false certainties, ambiguities, and dogmas of every side, philosophy can still have a place in contemporary thought.

Bertrand Russell referred to philosophy as a constantly-assailed ‘no-man’s land’ between science and religion. However, a more accurate metaphor would be to think of philosophy as the faultline between the ‘continental plates’ of knowledge, and of philosophical debate as the ‘tectonic activity’ (the earthquakes, volcanoes…) created as these plates collide. As long as the faultlines exist, philosophical debate will continue, and philosophy will still be one of the friends of wisdom, at least.

Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire

When wisdom be the goal of man
Cometh the hammer of philosophy
To crack, destroy, deconstruct
The dark deceptions of reality.
Be it truth, suffering, life or death,
Let the analytic mallet fall,
Lest self-deceit or mad despair
Cause man’s flourishing to stall.
For faith and nihilism came undone
With Nietzsche’s mighty will-to-power
Out of the abyss of meaninglessness
Rose self-affirmation’s flower.
Just look how sweet the garden grows
Atop the lawn of wisdom’s dawn
When from on high the great minds cry
Within the existential thunderstorm!
If not the brave ones armed with reason
Who else can lead us through the dark,
On that lonely road of living
Upon which all of us embark?
They alone battle gods and monsters,
Exorcise false diversions,
Elevate true enlightenment,
Defile man’s perversions.
Artists merely decorate,
Scientists blindly gaze,
Poets radiantly elucidate
In elegant turn of phrase;
But wisdom needs philosophy’s axe
To spear and steer the being-here;
A compass, weapon, learned master
To teach us well how not to fear
Only through a love of fate can we create
A life of meaning, value, beauty
Helping us embrace the night
In gallant authenticity.
In caverns deep the answers sleep;
In misty mountain, lonely star;
And so we try to truth untie
Approaching knowledge near and far.
Yes, the greatest minds to set us free
Are the ones who question why.
If wisdom be no friend of philosophy
What else will light the dreary sky
And vanquish life’s futility?

Bianca Laleh, Totnes, Devon

Philosophy is more than just a friend of wisdom: philosophy and wisdom are inextricably bound to each other.

Wisdom was understood by Cowley in ‘Moral philosophy and the ‘real world’’ (2011) as coming to understand one’s own life, the lives of others, and the relationships amongst us; and by Gayle in ‘Befriending Wisdom’ (1989) more simply as ‘the power to choose well’. In the Greek, phronesis or practical wisdom, impels us to act in the right, good, or just way; or as Comte-Sponville puts it in A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues (2001) as “good sense, but in the service of goodwill.” Phronesis may also be thought of as prudence – looking forwards and backwards before making a decision about whether and how to act. For Meeks and Jeste in ‘Neurobiology of Wisdom’ (2009), wisdom involves the domains of rational decision-making; social behaviours involving empathy, compassion, and altruism; self-reflection; decisiveness in the face of uncertainty; and tolerance of divergent value systems. So wisdom, in its fullest sense of ‘encapsulating knowledge, meaning and truth’, is necessary for a value system to be conceptualised.

Philosophy, meanwhile, arguably is the summation of our value systems as human beings, and concerns all that which is significant or which matters. The aim of philosophy has been given by R.M. Hare in Essays in Ethical Theory (1989) as to find a way of thinking better; by Peter Singer in Ethics (1994) as the study of reasoning about how we ought to act; and by Bishop Berkeley in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledg e (1710) as “nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth” – in turn leading to calm and a serenity of mind, a greater clarity. Philosophy has also been characterised by Wittgenstein in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1933) not as a body of doctrine but as an activity; and by phenomenology as an optic: a way of seeing things. Plato in his Republic described philosophers as ‘lovers of the vision of truth’. As UNESCO noted in ‘Philosophy: A School of Freedom’ (2007) philosophy “is a matter not just of knowing, but of understanding the meaning and the principles of knowing … rigorously putting concepts and ideas into perspective.”

So we can see that philosophy and wisdom are necessarily intertwined: they complete each other’s existence.

Paul Walker, Newcastle, Australia

In Athens during the early fourth century BC, Diogenes the Cynic was disappointed by what people had become: ignorant, struggling for power, seeking nothing but pleasure. He used to stroll about Athens carrying a lamp in full daylight, crying out: “I am looking for a human!” (not just an ‘honest man’, as modern sources have it). Unlike Nietzsche’s madman, who also carried a lamp in daylight, searching for God, and declaring God dead, Diogenes remained hopeful and did not declare humanity dead – maybe because he knew that humans were unique in their ability to do philosophy: to search for truth in order to obtain wisdom.

However, paradoxically, without lies, there is no truth. When we stop speaking about ‘lies’, instead talking of ‘alternative facts’, or ‘alternative truths’, we kill truth, and get a glimpse of post-truth – the belief in what we feel to be true; the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true to those known to be true. In a post-modern world, each has his/her own truth, and truth becomes just a matter of taste. We trust our guts instead of the facts. In fact, though, post-truth does not mask lies as truth; it is about renouncing both truth and lie. The triumph of post-truth is our collective defeat of wisdom.

I believe that philosophy is still the friend of wisdom, but the forgotten one. And like an old friend waiting to be remembered, philosophy awaits us to continue the search for truth so that ‘lie’ does not lose its meaning. It is up to us not only in the media, academia and in art, but also in the streets, to keep searching for truth and thus to keep truth alive. Truth is held captive by envy, hypocrisy and stupidity, but it can be rescued by Time (as depicted in Theodor Van Thulden’s painting Time Reveals the Truth). So, maybe it’s time for us to remember about philosophy, the forgotten friend of wisdom, as the hope remains that the search for truth can bring us together not simply as ‘men’, but as humans.

Nella Leontieva, Randwick, New South Wales

Wisdom tipped her head beneath the lintel and twisted her shoulders through the doorway, somehow managing to squeeze into the coffee house. She was tall and her shoulders were broad. It was hard to see how it was possible, but she was dwarfed by the bag that she carried over her shoulder. She sat at a table, with knees that peaked over the table-top, and ordered her espresso. The long and terribly out-of-place sword that hung from her belt scraped across the floor in harmony with the chair legs as she settled herself into a more comfortable position. She had been out on the plains of Science stuffing her bag with facts to feed the hydra. One of the hydra’s severed heads was tied to her belt and was both shrunken and emaciated, croaking “Nothing,” in a parched whisper.

“Fancy seeing you here!” I cried as I strolled across the terrazzo floor with a warm smile of welcome.

“Imagine you, Pilgrim, in a coffee shop!” she replied, her gray eyes twinkling. She patted her bag and said, “I’ve spent too long out with Research and Discovery, and the hydra will be hungry.”

“I don’t understand why you continue to lop off the heads of that poor beast. Look at poor Nihil here croaking at your belt.”

“You know very well that Truth calls to me when I walk into the hydra’s Cave” – as though it knew of the mention of its name, her sword seemed to glow and exude warmth – “and any of the heads making silly arguments fall to the floor.”

“While two more appear, instantly arguing opposite sides of the same basic position.”

“Nothing,” croaked Nihil.

“Yes,” Wisdom smiled, looking at the head at her belt: “Except for Nihil here, who just never stops talking. But pretty soon the whole hydra is distracted from the shadows in the Cave.”

“You are a good friend to Philosophy,” I said, naming the hydra. “You keep it well fed and prune it with Truth.”

I gave her a hug before I headed out into the dusty street.

William Fishburne, Greenbelt, Maryland

Next Question of the Month

Capitalist environmental destruction? No! Communist oppression? No! The next question is: What Is The Third Way? Please give and explain your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 10th June 2019. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer.

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